The American Junior Golf Association honored Emily Sumner, 17, of North Tustin, California, with the Jerry Cole Sportsmanship Award Sunday at the Rolex Junior All-America Awards Banquet at PGA National Resort & Spa. The honor is bestowed each year to one junior golfer who displays exemplary sportsmanship and integrity in the game of golf.
Unlike most high school golfers, Sumner has to worry about more than staying out of hazards and keeping up with pace of play during AJGA tournaments. She has to worry about breathing.
As an eighth grader, Sumner began to have difficulty breathing especially while participating in physical activity. Over the next few years, Sumner’s condition worsened and began to affect her ability to compete with her peers on the golf course. In July 2014, Sumner earned entry into her first AJGA Open tournament, but her inability to breathe forced her to withdraw from play.
Sumner was admitted to Johns Hopkins hospital where she was diagnosed with an ultra-rare lung disease that affects 3.7 per one million people. Because of a protein buildup in Sumner’s alveoli, her lung function is 60 percent of what a “normal” person’s should be. The condition inhibits oxygen flow throughout her body, making it very difficult and painful to walk 18 holes on a golf course, especially those with hills.
Despite being sidelined for eight weeks after her initial diagnosis, Sumner returned to the course to compete for her high school in the fall of 2014.
During difficult treatments and time away from the course, Sumner never lost sight of her passion for the game and her competitors even when it was physically hurt her to play. Instead of using her disease as an excuse, Sumner uses it as an opportunity to showcase her strength of character and perseverance.
“I don’t want the disease to be who I am because it doesn’t control my life,” Sumner said.” I’m in control of my life. I just love golf and I want to do whatever it takes to keep playing.”
Sumner has developed relationships with others affected by the disease, most notably Steve Park. Park, also a passionate golfer, is in remission after 44 hospitalizations because of the disease. Despite living in Colorado, Park and Sumner bonded and he served as her caddy at the 2015 U.S. Girls’ Junior Qualifier in Denver. Although playing was difficult, Sumner prevailed to win the tournament and advance to the U.S. Girls’ Junior in Tulsa where Park once again accompanied her.
In addition to persevering through challenges on the golf course, Sumner excels in the classroom, gives back to golf through Leadership Links and has accumulated more than 200 hours of community service.
Sumner's attitude and charachter on and off the golf course embodies the AJGA's mission of developing well-rounded young men and women through golf.